On this day 27 years ago, East and West Berlin were reunited after almost three decades of division by the infamous and despised Berlin Wall.
Built in 1961, the dividing wall separated Community East Germany from the capitalist West. It was put up so quickly and with so little warning that many Berlin families were forcibly split apart and could only shout messages to each other across the ‘no-man’s land’ on either side of the wall, guarded by soldiers armed with machine guns.
At the end of World War II, Germany was divided by the Allies into four occupation zones, administered by The USA, the UK, France and the Soviet Union. Germany’s capital. Berlin, lay in the Soviet zone, but because it was the base for the Allied Control Council, Berlin was also split into four zones, reflecting the rest of the country.
But in the years after the war, first hundreds and then thousands of citizens began to flee the harsh rule of Communist-controlled East Germany and head for a better life in the West, most doing so through Berlin. By 1960 it was estimated around 2.5 million people had fled East Germany, including a high proportion of the country’s scientists and intellectuals.
To counter this ‘brain drain’ the Soviets came up with a solution that was brutal in its simplicity. Large pre-fabricated sections of concrete wall were manufactured in secret, in readiness for midnight on August 12th, 1961, when all borders to the West were suddenly closed. Temporary barriers of barbed wire and wood were erected, guarded by thousands of soldiers, while thousands more workers began tearing down buildings alongside the border and erecting the first sections of the wall.
Once they realised what was happening, many East Germans tried to flee through the barricades. Some made it, but many others were shot and killed in the attempt. Within weeks, large sections of the wall were in place, continually strengthened and bolstered by guard towers. The hastily cleared ‘no-man’s land’ – designed to give the border guards a clear line of fire – meant the wall stood in isolation, fast becoming the most visible symbol of the ‘Cold War’ between East and West.
After the wall’s completion, it and other fortifications along the heavily guarded 860-mile border between East and West Germany ensured East Germans remained under Soviet Communist control. For most it was a hard life with little personal freedom, made even harder by news of post-war West Germany’s increasing prosperity.
Eventually though, the Cold War began to thaw. In August 1989, East Germany’s Communist but more liberal neighbour Hungary effectively dismantled its physical border defences with Austria, in the West. It unleashed a steady stream of East Germans travelling to Hungary and from there across the border to Austria and the West.
In October 1989 East Germany’s hardline Communist leader Eric Honecker was forced to resign in the face of overwhelming opposition to his government, followed by the resignation of his entire cabinet. By early November the stream of East Germans fleeing to the West had become a torrent until, finally, on November 9th, the new East German government announced that all gates in the Berlin Wall would be opened with immediate effect, allowing free travel between East and West Germany.
Celebrations began immediately, with a few brave East Germans tentatively climbing the hated wall, still not knowing if they would be shot. When it became clear they wouldn’t be, hundreds of others followed, dancing and embracing on top of the wall, and beginning to hack chunks off it.
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl hailed it a historic day and called for a meeting with his East German counterpart, to begin planning for a new united Germany. Just as its building had been, the breaching of the wall symbolised much greater social change. It signalled the disintegration of Communist rule in East Germany and within a year the two divided nations were formally reunited.
Official dismantling of the wall began in June 1990 and took several months to complete, but long before then it had been extensively damaged by hordes of citizens nicknamed “wall woodpeckers”, who chipped away at it with whatever tools they could find. In several places holes had been punched right through the wall opening up new and unofficial crossing places.
In the years that followed there would also be public recriminations, with several former East German officials held to account for the scores of people shot while attempting to cross into West Berlin.